Pomegranate, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kosher Country
By Bridget Goldschmidt
A single location in Brooklyn is reinventing the way to sell groceries to a key demographic and beyond, by creating what management calls "an amazing supermarket that happens to be kosher."
The Midwood section of Brooklyn seems at first like many other outer-borough neighborhoods across New York City, but there are some important differences. Because the area is home to a sizable population of Orthodox Jews, you won't find the ubiquitous (and non-kosher) fast-food restaurants that dot other locales as you traverse streets lined with discount clothing shops, appliance stores and outlets for items like bathroom fixtures and refrigeration and heating supplies; instead, kosher restaurants and pizza places predominate. Second, you'll notice the profusion of signs in Hebrew and Russian, languages commonly spoken in the neighborhood. Third, many male residents sport the full beards and distinctive black hats and coats traditionally worn by Hasidic Jews.
In such a place, the opening of a kosher supermarket is hardly surprising, but the debut of Pomegranate last year caused something of a stir. Unlike the surrounding food stores, the new location presented a decidedly upmarket image — from the chic wooden flooring and subdued lighting, to the carefully merchandised displays, to the gourmet-quality food selections, to the dedicated associates — that's been enticing not only core kosher shoppers from the community and further afield, but also gentiles in search of superior offerings and service.
Even on a relatively quiet day for the store — the Monday after the holiday of Shavuos, which commemorates the anniversary of the day Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai — a steady stream of customers, consisting of mainly, but by no means only, older shoppers and mothers with young children in tow, arrived to make purchases from among a truly breathtaking array of items in an attractive setting.
The attraction begins with the exterior. Taking up a full city block, the site offers an amenity rarely seen at retailers within New York's city limits, where real estate is at a premium: complimentary valet parking. The store itself is adorned by a sign and banners bearing the company's logo, an inviting opened pomegranate with its seeds still intact. The banners also tout Pomegranate's logo: "Everything Better," a promise that shoppers who've made the schlep out to Brooklyn won't be disappointed by what they find inside.
"Being it's a kosher supermarket, we have three separate kitchens: a dairy kitchen, a meat kitchen and pareve, which is kind of neutral — not dairy or meat," explains the boundlessly energetic Mayer Gold, Pomegranate's general manager, who effortlessly multitasks throughout the tour, overseeing deliveries, directing associates and schmoozing with customers. "In kosher dietary laws, meat and dairy don't mix." Pareve foods, however, can be eaten together with either meat or dairy foods.
Pomegranate prepares an estimated 35 percent of its offerings on premises daily in its upstairs kitchens, with all products made from "top-quality, all-natural ingredients, with no fillers or preservatives," in Gold's words, and sold under the Pomegranate house brand.
What first grabs a visitor's attention upon entering the store is a bakery section divided into grab-and-go and full-service areas. Dairy and pareve cakes in sizes ranging from miniature to large reflect the varying needs of the surrounding community, where bigger families are commonplace. "You have a big family, you have company coming over, you want a snack — we have everything over here," observes Gold. The tempting selection of store-baked breads includes Olive, Flaxseed, French and Whole Wheat.
Beyond the bakery is a sushi section staffed by accomplished sushi chefs who regularly prepare 20 to 30 rolls in-house, as well as custom orders. "Any top-shelf restaurant would die to have these guys there," says Gold.
Next comes the deli, which Gold describes as having "the biggest deli showcase in any kosher supermarket, period." When asked if that includes the entire United States, he responds, with no little pride, "I've never seen a bigger one, [and] I’ve been to many kosher supermarkets."
Those trips to other supermarkets, kosher and non-kosher alike, were part of the extensive research undertaken for Pomegranate. "We spent a year planning the store before we opened it up," recounts Gold. "We’ve been everywhere, from the Whole Foods flagship store in Austin, Texas, to northern California and Florida — anywhere that had a supermarket worth seeing, we saw."
As a result of such travels, management was able to develop Pomegranate's own unique approach to selling groceries. "We took the best of everything [we saw] and improved on it, and we’re constantly improving [still]," says Gold. "Nothing you see now is going to stay the same. Everything changes on a rotating basis; as needs evolve, as the customers respond, as tastes evolve, we update accordingly."
Among the popular sandwiches prepared at the deli counter are honey-glazed corned beef, hot pastrami, and brisket, while a large number of prepared foods, including baked salmon, meat loaf and breaded chicken cutlets, entice passing customers. Catering service is also available.
A particularly eye-catching feature of the deli is a capacious cheese section. "We set out to create the biggest kosher cheese section [in terms of] variety," observes Gold. "We import our own Dutch cheeses. We send people out all over Italy to find different things no one else has. Plus, many cheeses we produce in-house. Cheese blends, our own flavorings and seasonings: Boursin pepper cheese, sliced cheeses, Peppadew sun-dried tomato, onion garlic — all produced in-house."
There's also an "olive bar, bar none," as Gold punningly refers to it, offering product sourced from Greece and Morocco, among other far-flung places. "What we set out to do at Pomegranate was bring the kosher consumer things they never had before, because kosher's always limited to what's available commercially," says Gold. "We go out and we source the products."
He calls sourcing product "a full-time job" that has become "a constant thing — raising the bar, raising the level of what we can do."
Among the huge assortment of store-made dips and salads are Honey Dijon Raspberry Mustard dip and a truly mind-blowing assortment of tuna salads, including French, Italian and Israeli variants. The popular display includes a sugar-free selection as well.
"The chefs start off with the concept, they develop the recipe, and then we take it and tweak it based on customer feedback, tweaking it and tweaking it until we get the final product," Gold says of Pomegranate's house recipes. "We do demos every day and get customer feedback, and work with that to develop the product."
The produce section offers "certain things the consumer wants and cannot necessarily find," says Gold, including such specialty items as knob celery for soup preparation; a full line of store-packed dried fruits, including plums, cherries and blueberries; and organics integrated with conventional fruits and vegetables. Gold estimates the ratio of organic to conventional product at "about 75 percent [conventional] to 25 percent [organic], and it's growing on a daily basis" in response to customer feedback.
"We try to keep [conventional and organic prices] as close as possible," notes Gold. "We give the customer fair value for their dollar." When asked how he did this, he answered: "Buy well, mark up less on organic even though many mark it up much more. We try to mark it up within reason." That value proposition extends throughout the store: Despite its upscale profile, Pomegranate routinely offers prices comparable to those of competing area stores.
Over in the fish department, the most popular species include flounder and wild or farmed salmon, with striped sea bass a "very big seller for the holiday," according to Gold. Among the other regular selections are grouper, tile and perch. The department will also grill fresh fish behind the counter if customers request it.
The full-service meat department is similarly home to an outstanding assortment of Prime beef, "which is very unheard-of in a kosher supermarket," says Gold. Selections include baby back ribs, kabobs, marinated items and, the section's particular pride and joy, aged beef, which sits for four to six weeks in a special climate-controlled compartment over the full-service showcase.
Nearby, the meat case features a full selection of Choice beef, which is "cut up right here on premises," says Gold, with custom cuts available. Lamb, veal and chicken are also on hand.
Further down along the back wall of the store is an ingenious "Shabbos section" featuring easy refrigerated meal solutions for Jewish Sabbath observers, who don't cook from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Items include broiled chicken livers, ready-made kugels (noodle or potato pudding) and prepared soups. Also at the back is a small but upscale selection of kitchen implements, among them bamboo skewers and garlic presses.
Even in the grocery part of the store, which tends at many retailers to be less imaginatively laid out than the fresh sections are, shoppers are made aware of the Pomegranate difference. For starters, there are the specialty products the store stocks, like Syrian cheese from a small-batch producer in New Jersey. "We have a large Syrian [Jewish] community in Brooklyn," notes Gold. "They request this cheese … and we're one of the few people who sell it." Other authentic Syrian delicacies can be found down the aisle in a refrigerated end cap, which holds such store-made items as heat-and-eat beef cigars.
A batch of items targeting another segment of Pomegranate's diverse customer base can be found in the gluten-free section. "A lot of people in the Ashkenaz [European Jewish] community have celiac disease," says Gold, "so we have an entire group [of products] here, everything from pasta to cereal to sauce, all gluten-free, plus a freezer [with] frozen products, side dishes, cakes, cookies. These are not [usually] available to the kosher consumer ... We started with a [small] section; now, we have a 12-foot section and two freezer doors."
A large contingent of Israeli shoppers means that brands from that country share space with U.S. products. For instance, Pereg spices from Israel can be found alongside McCormick items. Besides the mix of imported products and local kosher brands like Gefen, which is manufactured right in Brooklyn, Pomegranate also carries organic options when available, which are integrated on the shelves.
Additionally, "Products and product placement are key in center store," notes Gold, citing the placement of popular products at eye level so they're easy to find, and items like salad dressings and croutons positioned together for convenience.
A fairly large baby care section combines food and nonfoods — diapers, wipes, formulas and baby foods — in yet another case of convenience-based cross-merchandising: For Gold, the placement is a no-brainer: "[If a] customer's looking for baby food, he's looking for diapers as well."
Throughout center store, one of the most striking features is the extra-wide aisles. Measuring an impressive seven-and-a-half-feet wide, they allow shopping carts going in opposite directions and bulky baby strollers to pass with ease. "This is all planned out, to give the customer the most space to get by," says Gold.
Regardless of all the bells and whistles, what it comes down to for the kosher community is that the products sold conform to traditional dietary laws. Pomegranate's staff remains intensely focused on that priority. "Every product in the store [is] all kosher certified," says Gold, "so your kosher consumer can walk in here [and] have that assurance [that] everything in the store is already pre-approved."
Once that main concern has been dealt with, however, such shoppers are as interested in variety and excitement as any other demographic. "The kosher consumer is a funny consumer," notes Gold "They want everything the same — the matzoh balls and the chopped liver that they grew up with — and they also want everything different: sushi, caviar, aged beef … The customer base, although it must be primarily the kosher consumer, is not the traditional kosher consumer."
Indeed, the heady combination of the tried-and-true and the novel has proved to be a magnet for kosher shoppers across the region. "Sunday I like to call 'Visiting Day,'" says Gold. "Sunday we have people coming in from the whole tri-state area — way out from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut. They want to see what the store's all about."
Beyond the kosher consumer, though, Pomegranate welcomes anyone seeking the best in both food and overall ambience. “There are many customers who shop here who are not Jewish, whether they're Moslem, Seventh-Day Adventist or they just want to keep a kosher diet because they believe it [offers] better quality," observes Gold.
With the single-store operation's success, mainstream retailers are sitting up and taking notice, eager to garner a few tips on how to enhance their own offerings, kosher or not. "We actually had a parade of buyers from Costco in here over Passover," discloses Gold. "Maybe 25 people. We consider it flattering."
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The Name Game
One particularly intriguing aspect of Pomegranate is how the store got its name. "Everybody's asking that question," chuckles owner Abraham Banda, who adds that he wanted a name that would be "exciting, something that people would be able to relate to."
The main reason he went with "Pomegranate," however, is because of the fruit's uniqueness. "Every fruit has six or seven varieties — [like] oranges or apples — [but] the pomegranate has only one," explains Banda, who purchased an existing 10,000- or 11,000-square-foot grocery market on the site, with the intention of razing it and building a new one, and then bought out the mechanic next door — a project that resulted in the current store and adjacent parking lot. "With a pomegranate, you know right away what it is. There's only one kind."
Further, the nutritional profile of pomegranates, which contain antioxidants, appealed to him. And, of course, the religious associations run deep: in addition to being one of the special fruits eaten on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, pomegranate is one of the Seven Species of Israel (the others are wheat, barley, grapes, fig, olive and date).
Therefore, the name encompasses multiple meanings that reverberate for Jewish and gentile shoppers alike.
Many supermarkets tout their customer service, but Pomegranate approaches this aspect of its offering with particular zeal. A "super-friendly" staff attends to all shopper needs, from helping them find products to placing grocery bags in their cars, says general manager Mayer Gold, adding that customer suggestions are always welcome.
"Really, there's an open door," he notes. "Shoppers, they know who to find, who the managers are. There's a big presence in management in the store."
Great ideas don't come just from shoppers, however; at Pomegranate, associates are encouraged to get into the act as well. "Every suggestion is duly noted — not always acted upon, but still taken into consideration," observes Gold. For employees, this climate of openness holds true for "everyone, from the top manager to anyone on the totem pole," he insists. Gold studiously avoids classifying any employees as being at the bottom of the pecking order. "There are no small players, only small parts," he affirms. "Everyone is really integral" to the process. He adds that it doesn't matter where the ideas originate, as long as they improve the operation of the store.
As well as responding readily to customer requests and sharing ideas across the associate spectrum, Pomegranate ensures quality product and selection through specialization. The fish and meat department managers, for instance, spend all of their time working in their respective sections exclusively, but, at the same time, all managers are expected to "focus on the big picture," notes Gold. "It's really a team effort."
Moreover, he believes that the operation's single-store setup allows it to be as responsive and agile as possible when it comes to fulfilling shopper expectations. "The key is to focus on getting the customer the best product possible," he says from the "nerve center," a small room a flight of stairs up from the store floor. "There's no corporate office saying, 'Do this, do this.' This is it. It's very hands-on."
Cooking the Kosher Way
One way Pomegranate has sought to drive traffic and create interest in its upscale approach to kosher food is by holding free monthly demos featuring celebrity chefs specializing in kosher cuisine — and although the "Meet the Celebrity Kosher Chef" series is still in its infancy, it already seems to be working.
The first demo, which took place May 13 in the store's deli section, featured Susie Fishbein, author of the "Kosher by Design" series of cookbooks, whom Pomegranate general manager Mayer Gold describes as "the guru of kosher cooking." The event drew about 100 people, who learned how to prepare such dishes as Creamy White Bean Hummus with Steeped Tomatoes. Further, the store makes sure to stock the ingredients featured in the chef's recipes, so home cooks can replicate the dishes, and even offers a booklet detailing which recipe appears in which "Kosher by Design" book, for easy reference.
Perhaps most impressive, Pomegranate meets Fishbein's high standards. On a recent trip to the store, the exacting chef was satisfied by the broad range of products, a justifiably proud Gold recounted, paraphrasing her remark that "hard-to-find items are staple items for us."
On June 17, Levana Kirschenbaum, co-owner of Levana Restaurant and author of three cookbooks, arrived to prepare four recipes, including Chilled Avocado Cucumber Soup and Quick Pistachio Coconut Halvah. Like Fishbein, Kirschenbaum was assisted by Pomegranate's team of chefs, headed by Mike Schulte.
On June 29 a free BBQ demo took place in the store's parking lot, attracting over 200 attendees. Pomegranate chef Jason Beck demonstrated and discussed grilling steaks, burgers and vegetables, as well as distributing samples. The store is hosting a variety of semi-weekly events throughout the the summer including celebrity chef visits, instructional cooking tips and the celebration of its first anniversary in August.
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Deerfield IL 60015
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